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Successful Energize! conference draws community leaders to Wessington Springs

The 2023 Energize! conference, hosted by SDSU Extension's Community Vitality Team, was held from May 31 to June 1 in Wessington Springs. Attendees visit various businesses throughout the conference, including an outdoor refreshment break on Main Street.

BROOKINGS, S.D. – Communities in western South Dakota who would like to host a dynamic event are in luck: applications are now being accepted to host the 2024 Energize! conference.

From May 31 to June 1, Wessington Springs hosted nearly 120 community leaders from across the state for the 2023 Energize! Conference, organized by South Dakota State University Extension’s Community Vitality team.

Held in a different community each year, Energize! is an opportunity for community and business leaders to gather, gain new perspectives and share ideas about revitalizing rural communities. The unique conference aims to re-energize rural communities with populations of fewer than 5,000 people. 

This year’s program featured a keynote speech and sessions by Danna Larson, founder of Rural Revival, a marketing, entrepreneurship and consulting agency based out of Odebolt, Iowa, that champions rural communities. Additional topics included arts and culture, youth engagement, funding community projects and community growth. Rural residents shared stories of overcoming challenges, and organizations serving rural communities showcased what resources they provide. Like the preceding conferences in De Smet, Lemmon, Milbank and Fort Pierre, the event utilized a community development model offered by SDSU Extension Community Vitality titled, “Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities,” to connect attendees into the community’s core commercial areas by holding breakout sessions at various locations. The multi-venue approach provides attendees an opportunity to visit the businesses, and gets business owners and community members involved with the conference.

Brecken and Bosten Jensen set up a lemonade stand outside of their dad's grocery store in Wessington Springs. Ryan Jensen, owner of Springs Food Market, was one of the food vendors for this year's Energize! conference, held from May 31 to June 1.

Ryan Jensen, owner of Springs Food Market and Jensen’s True Value, was one of the food vendors for the event. As the owner of two local businesses, Jensen said it can be hard to get away for conferences. Having the event in Wessington Springs gave him a unique opportunity to network with other small-town business owners and community leaders – without leaving home. 

His sons also took advantage of the occasion – 5-year-old Brecken and 7-year-old Bosten set up a lemonade stand outside the grocery store during the morning break of the second day.

“I think it’s a great thing for our community to collaborate with other communities in the same boat,” Jensen said.

The 2023 conference brought an estimated $20,222 to the Wessington Springs economy during the two-day event. The economic impact was distributed through Wessington Springs – local food vendors provided meals, lodging establishments housed out-of-town attendees, and attendees reported shopping at local businesses. Chamber members were supported through the $10 in “chamber bucks” provided to each attendee to spend at a local business.

Each year, host communities have an evening to further showcase their community and Wessington Springs treated attendees to an evening of celebration with music, food and community. Following a prime rib dinner, Wessington Springs Mayor Brian Bergeleen and his three daughters provided entertainment, along with a hometown favorite, Dustin Evans. 

In addition to business owners, the conference brings together city, community and economic development employees who often work on one- or two-person teams. Lyssa Bruzelius, executive director of Missouri River Tourism, said she considers Energize! to be one of the most beneficial of the many conferences she has attended. She appreciated the networking opportunities and walked away from the conference feeling energized and excited.

Conference attendees also said that Energize! improved their knowledge of local resources, and inspired them to try new things in their own communities. 

The 2024 Energize! conference will be held in the western half of the state. Host community applications will be accepted through Oct. 1. To apply, contact Kari O’Neill, SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program Manager.